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No one in and around Jordan seemed surprised to learn Monday that Adam Kerber, 17, had been allowed to drive his family's massive motor home to Minnesota after a weeklong vacation in Texas.
"Adam was a very good driver, a confident driver," John Marks, a close friend of the Kerber family, said Monday.
On Sunday, the family's trip, which had been a joyful affair except for a rash of mechanical problems, turned into a horrific tragedy when Adam apparently lost control of the motor home and trailer and they plunged into a ravine off Interstate 35 in Kansas, killing five family members and injuring 13 other passengers.
The deaths of the Kerber family members, coming less than six years after family patriarch Glen Kerber died of a rare tissue disorder, shocked the community of 5,500 people, which is in southern Scott County, southwest of the Twin Cities metro area.
Marks and others said Adam Kerber and the other kids in his large extended family were expected to know their way around motorized vehicles, even at ages when most children are just starting to be trusted to ride their bicycles to school.
"Every one of those kids could drive a car, back a car up, by the time they were 10 years old," Marks said.
Their father, Glen, was a mechanic, and a good one by all accounts. The kids, who eventually would number 12, could often be seen helping him in the shop next to their property on the outskirts of Jordan.
The town is only big enough to have one grade school, one middle school and one high school. The Kerber children, ranging in age from 5 to 17, were sprinkled throughout the district, school officials said.
"This is a tragedy for the whole community," said Deb Pauly, chairwoman of the Jordan school board. "It is beyond comprehension. It's impacted a whole lot of people."
On Monday, the crash and deaths were the topic of discussion from schools to banks and from restaurants to city offices, according to residents.
"I went to coffee this morning and everybody was heartbroken," said Terry Engelby, who lives next door to the Kerber family compound. "Everybody knows them in one way or another because it is such a small town. And everybody knew about the hardship they had before, with the dad dying, so it's doubly tough."
"We are truly overwhelmed by the size of this accident," said Kirk Nelson, Jordan school superintendent. "We know the family is going to need a lot of help."
So are the 1,700 students in the district, who returned from spring break Monday morning to be greeted by friends, teachers, grief counselors and ministers from districts and churches in the surrounding area.
"The reaction I got was shock, extreme shock," Nelson said when asked how the schools and the town were handling the news of the deaths.
The Kerbers and two other families were returning to Minnesota from a motorcycle riding vacation in Texas during spring break for the children.
Investigators with the Kansas Highway Patrol said Monday that they do not have an exact cause of the crash, but believe the driver lost control of the Freightliner box truck before it hit a guardrail and went tumbling into a creek off Interstate 35 about 70 miles southwest of Kansas City.
The Kerbers often traveled out of state for motorcycle races, especially because Adam was a talented motocross rider and was on his way to a possible professional racing career.
"That was the next step," said Marks as he sat with his wife, Mary Jo, and a friend while awaiting word on the condition of Adam and the other crash survivors.
"Everybody wants to help," Mary Jo Marks said. "Everybody here is still in shock."
Killed were Adam's siblings Jessica, 10, James, 12, and Joy, 14, as well as older brother Tom, 25, of New Prague, and his wife, Melissa, 24. None of those killed was wearing a seat belt, authorities said.
Other Kerber siblings injured were Timothy, 15; Sarah, 14; Nicholas, 8, and Hannah, 5.
Their mother, Pauline, 46, was in critical condition Monday morning, although she was able to call friends and school authorities in Jordan.
The others injured were identified as Payton Hammers, 2, of Chaska; Matthew Hammers, 30, of Chaska; Madelyne Barney, 14, of Cologne; Ashley Henry, 21, of Carver; Zachery Bell, 15, of Chaska; Cody Slark, 18, of Chaska, and Matt Vanbank, 16, of Jordan.
At least four of the 13 survivors were critically injured. They were taken to hospitals in Ottawa, Topeka and the Kansas City metro area.
Adam Kerber and Vanbank were the only people wearing seat belts. It was not known whether restraint devices were available for the others.
Lt. Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol said Monday that Adam Kerber, who remains in critical condition, was properly licensed to operate a recreational vehicle despite his age and the provisional nature of his license. "Under the current statutes and regulations, it's allowable," he said.
No one was home at the Kerber residence Monday afternoon, the last of the relatives having traveled to Kansas to be with the survivors and to see after the dead. Flowers were left at the foot of the drive and at the mailbox.
Friends said the trip almost didn't happen.
Minutes after they left Jordan, the alternator on the motor home burned out and had to be fixed. Then, over the next few days, tires blew out on five occasions on the way to Texas.
"The whole thing started out badly," said Marks. "I said, 'I'll see you when you get back.' Now they're not all coming back."
Heron Marquez Estrada • 952-746-3281 Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.
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